Gurpreet proved to be the wall for the Blue Tigers as they held the Asian champions to a goalless draw in Doha
Indian men’s football team proved their doubters wrong with a great performance to hold the reigning Asian champions Qatar to a 0-0 draw in their second Group E tie of the 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifiers at the Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium in Doha on Tuesday.
Even though the hosts threw everything at India, the visitors - led by goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu - stood tall against incessant waves of attack to play out a goalless draw against a team ranked 41 places above them in the FIFA rankings.
Coming into the tie, India knew getting anything against the hosts would require a herculean effort.
Their problems mounted even before kick-off as skipper Sunil Chhetri was ruled out due to fever while Ashique Kuruniyan, their star from the opening group defeat to Oman, suffered a niggle keeping him out as well.
Their absentees also meant head coach Igor Stimac was forced into making changes as Nikhil Poojary, Mandar Rao Desai, Sahal Abdul Samad and Manvir Singh came into the starting XI to replace Chhetri, Kuruniyan, Brandon Fernandes and Subhasish Bose.
Meanwhile, there were changes in the Qatari side as well with Bassam Hisham and Abdul Aziz Hatem coming in for the injured Akram Afif and Karim Boudiaf.
The match began in expected fashion as the Qataris looked to establish their supremacy with Almoez Ali trying to unsettle the Indian backline with his clever movement.
Skipper Hassan Al-Haydos troubled right-back Rahul Bheke with his darting runs and powerful crosses, while Gurpreet was a busy man in the Indian goal.
The Indian custodian kept the hosts at bay by anticipating their moves to perfection and averting any danger with quick interceptions.
In the absence of Chhetri, India’s defence aided Grupreet superbly.
Sandesh Jhingan and Adil Khan complemented each other well and managed to keep the Qatari attack at bay time and again.
Defending deep in their own half meant India gave away a number of corners in the opening period. And it was no surprise that Qatar’s first real chance came from a set-piece.
With 25 minutes on the clock, an Al-Haydos corner was flicked on by Poojary only to find an unmarked Boualem Khoukhi on the far post. However, the 29-year-old failed to guide his header on target as the chance went begging.
Wave after wave of Qatari attack kept pounding the India defence.
But the visitors, a team ranked 103 in the world, did well to keep the danger away by crowding their penalty area and closing gaps to shut any passing options for the Qataris.
India’s solid defending resulted in the Qataris being restricted to trying their luck from the distance, forcing Gurpreet to pull off a few smart saves.
Qatar also found it difficult to time their runs as India kept their defensive discipline: catching their rivals offside on numerous occasions.
The second half too followed a similar pattern as India was pushed deep into their own half by an imposing Qatari unit.
However, the second 45 also saw Sahal and Udanta Singh combine a few times to make a few forays into opposition territory.
The attacking moves saw India win a few corners and one such corner gave them the perfect chance to take a shock lead. From Anirudh Thapa's corner, Sahal did well to keep his volley down, but his shot missed the goal by some distance.
Later it was Thapa and Udanta who combined with the latter trying his luck from outside the penalty area with a curling effort only for the ball to skim over the crossbar.
And though the dying minutes of the game saw Qatar throw the kitchen sink at India in search of the winner, the Blue Tigers held their ground to walk away with a point from the home of the Asian champions.
At the final whistle, the team celebrated a famous result with the sold-out away section inside the stadium.
The 'Icelandic clap' was transformed into an 'Indian clap' after fans witnessed an incredible rearguard action to secure a point.
The result means that India now have their first point in Group E heading into their next qualifying match at home to neighbours Bangladesh next month.